In May 1910 21-year-old Charlie Merz grappled with some pretty gruesome demons who wanted to squelch the passion out of his life. What should he have done to prevent the deaths of three other people? Why was he still alive?
Just nine months earlier, during the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy race, a tire let go on his mighty National Motor Vehicle Company racer as he soared down the tar and gravel home stretch at the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The big indigo machine spun out of control with the now-exposed hickory rim catching the earth between the racing surface and the inadequate picket fence behind which hundreds of spectators had gathered — to be close.
They were too close. The 2,000 pound racer crashed through the fence knocking down human beings like bowling pins.
Numerous people tumbled to the ground, either struck by the errant car or tripping over each other in the mad scramble for safety. Three men did not get back up and two — Homer Joliff and James West — never would again. The third man, Henry Tapking, was hospitalized.
The big National barrel-rolled and the man who sat beside Merz, riding mechanic Claude Kellum, was crushed by the weight of the brutish car. He was gone from this world.
Amazingly, Merz, still at the wheel of the overturned vehicle, opened his eyes and, after convincing himself he was still alive, realized further that he could feel and move all his limbs. He shut off his engine and gradually other noises filled his ears that had been dulled by piston blasts.
With the top of his head embedded in soft mud, the scent of leaking gasoline filling his nostrils and only dim light seeping through his overturned cockpit, his mind raced to sort through the cacophony of screams and voices all about him. He crawled through soupy, slimey soil and staggered to his feet. He felt like a ghost.
In the following weeks Merz, the son of an Indianapolis police officer, returned to his job at National convinced he wanted nothing more of driving — or riding in — race cars. He didn’t have the heart, or maybe the stomach, for it.
In the ensuing nine months the biggest news in the Hoosier capital was generated by the venue of Merz’ nightmare. A mega-project of essentially reconstructing the great Speedway five miles west of Indianapolis was taking place. A host of changes were being made but the centerpiece was paving the entire 2.5-mile course with bricks.
The locals started calling the biggest wonder of Indiana “The Brickyard,” and the local newspapers picked up on it. The vitrified surface promised greater speed and consequent records but also a level of safety unparalleled in the brutal world of motor racing during a time that would later be referred to as, “The Heroic Age.”
The American Automobile Association (AAA) announced a new program of “national championship” races and the Brickyard would host the debut of the new format. Speedway Founder Carl Fisher unleashed a relentless series of promotions promising newer, bigger, better races with impressive rewards. The largest was the $8,000 Tiffany-designed Wheeler-Schebler Trophy for a 200-mile race but also there was the 100-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy, the Speedway Helmet and assorted Olympian-style medals.
For a racer like Merz all of this was the siren’s song. The tough, impenetrable brick surface promised not to give way to the incessant pounding of tall, narrow wheels. There would be no dangerous, tire-gnawing ruts. The mighty new Brickyard refused to yield to its many critics wanting to label it a murder factory. Those old feelings about the sensory thrill of speed, about exploring a car’s limits and discovering an edge on the next guy flooded into his veins like the strongest tonic.
By May 1910 Charlie Merz was back at the wheel again. On May 27 Merz, who as a teenager in 1905 helped set the 24 hour world record for miles covered, was back home in the driver’s seat of a race car. He finished second to Tom Kincaid in the Speedway’s Prest-O-Lite Trophy. The image here is of Merz on his way to that success.
Go ahead. Dig in. Travel back to the Heroic Age — and let Charlie Merz be your chauffeur. He was one hell of a driver. He was one hell of a man.